Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 19, 2001
Defectors say Taliban foiled a bigger plan
Of 300 in plot, just 10 escaped, they said. 

At War With Terror

JAMCHI, Afghanistan - For three years the Taliban soldiers conspired at night in their mountain bunker, whispering code names on the radio to contact the enemy across the trenches.

This week, as the spies prepared to come in out of the cold and defect to the opposition Northern Alliance, their plan was uncovered by the Taliban.

At 3 a.m. Wednesday, 10 of them made a dash for the front line with their weapons.

"We were supposed to escape with 300 people, but the Taliban found out," said Malang Shah, 25, the commander of the defectors. "If they caught us, they would hang us."

The defectors, presented to reporters yesterday by opposition commanders, said that frontline Taliban troops were well-armed with tanks, rockets and artillery. But morale has plummeted with the onset of the American bombing campaign 12 days ago, they said.

Defections and desertions have depleted the strength of the front line in the Shamali Plain, a rich agricultural region along the Panjshir River valley about 25 miles north of the capital, Kabul. American bombers, punishing the Taliban for harboring terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, again stepped up their bombing closer to the front lines yesterday.

"In 10 to 20 days, because of the loss of soldiers, the Taliban won't be able to defend the front line," said Satar Nyazi, 18, one of the defectors.

The Northern Alliance, a fractious coalition of ethnic and political groups opposed to the Taliban, claims that thousands of defectors have joined its cause in recent weeks. There is no way to verify the alliance's claims, and it has made few defectors available for interviews.

The stories told by defectors yesterday confirmed accounts by alliance commanders that many troops on both sides are in constant communication, either by radio or through messages carried across lines by traders who smuggle goods and fuel from Kabul into rebel territory.

Gul Mohammed, the local alliance commander, said other groups would change sides in the coming weeks when the alliance is expected to advance on the capital.

"As we go farther toward Kabul, we'll get more defectors like these," said Gul Mohammed, who like many Afghans does not use a last name. "Hopefully, much of the conquest of Kabul will come through defections rather than fighting."

The nation's 23 years of civil war, first against Soviet occupation troops and most recently between the Taliban and former mujaheddin forces allied with the Northern Alliance, have been characterized by duplicity, treachery and betrayal. Troops dedicated to local commanders often defect en masse.

The defectors said they were all from the village of Jamchi. They joined the Taliban about three years ago when the Taliban advanced across the Shamali Plain, cutting off roads and supplies to areas under alliance control.

"Prices were going up in the area, the price of food was going up," said Shah, the unit commander. "We didn't have a choice."

Many of the stories seemed scripted. The soldiers all used the same language to describe the Taliban as "terrorists." And all of them said they were moved to defect more by their disgust at the Taliban's rapture after the Sept. 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance's popular military commander, than by the threat of the American bombing campaign. Such a response would appeal to their new alliance masters, for whom Massoud is practically a cult figure.

There were also questions about why the soldiers did not defect earlier, if their loyalty to the Taliban was unsound almost from the day they joined.

Some said they feared the Taliban would retaliate against their families living in Taliban territory. In recent days, they said, their families had moved to Northern Alliance territory in anticipation of their defections.

The soldiers said the Taliban commanders were foreigners - Pakistanis or Arabs linked to bin Laden - or Afghans from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. They treated the local soldiers manning the front lines with contempt, especially those from minority ethnic groups such as the Tajiks.

The Taliban is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, who account for about 40 percent of Afghanistan's 20 million people.

The defectors were a mixture of Tajiks and Pashtuns, who live peacefully together in many Shamali villages like Jamchi. Mohammed Khan, 30, one of three Pashtun defectors, said the Taliban treated him shoddily because he came from a largely Tajik village. "They said I am with the enemy," he said. "The Taliban are very nationalist."

As preparations this week were underway to lead the mass defection, Shah heard the Taliban talking about him on the radio. His cover was blown.

"I heard myself that the Taliban knew I was helping the alliance," he said.

He contacted his alliance commanders on the radio, and they agreed upon a rendezvous point early Wednesday.

Now that they have crossed over, the defectors plan to take up positions on the front line of the alliance, facing their former comrades. Shah said the Taliban troops included about 50 friends who had wanted to defect with him but whose plans were foiled this week.

In a militarized nation where allegiances shift quickly, and all that matters is which way the gun is pointing, Shah said he would not hesitate to kill his old Taliban compatriots.

"They are my enemies now," he said. "I will shoot them if I catch them." home page   
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